Springfield’s Mayor Isn’t About to Rest on Any Laurels

Forward Thinking

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno with a just a tiny piece of the vast collection of items now on display in his office.

Now in his ninth year as Springfield’s CEO, Domenic Sarno says much has been accomplished since he took office. He’s proud of these feats and will list them if prodded, but he’s more focused on the hard work still to come in the ongoing efforts to return the city to prominence. He’s buoyed by mounting evidence that cities, in general, are making a comeback, and that his, battle-tested by various forms of adversity, is more than ready to break out.

Domenic Sarno has now been mayor of Springfield for eight years and three months, give or take a few days. That means he’s been in that office longer than anyone in nearly six decades.

And if one wants to get an appreciation for everything’s that’s gone down in that time, all he or she has to do is visit Sarno’s office on the second floor of City Hall and take a good look around. But it would be wise to schedule a good bit of time for that assignment, if one wants to do it right.

Indeed, while most all mayors amass and display items that have come their way over their tenures, it’s unlikely that any corner-office holder can top this collection.

Almost every inch of Sarno’s large desk has been obliterated by a host of items, and all but the highest reaches of the tall, paneled walls are covered, mostly by photographs. Meanwhile, a decent chunk of floor space has been lost to items that can stand, like the nearly two dozen ceremonial shovels given to the mayor at groundbreakings for everything from MGM’s casino to CRRC’s subway-car manufacturing plant; from AIC’s new dining commons to Central High’s new science labs.

As for the photographs, they come in all shapes and sizes and portray a wide range of subjects. Framed shots of his family — father, mother, wife Carla, and daughters Cassandra and Chiara — sit on a shelf directly across the room from the center of his desk, for easy viewing, something he says he does often, and particularly when the going gets tough.

As for the rest of the photos, most of them unframed and printed from his computer or the sender’s, they run the gamut, and feature the mayor with individuals and groups of all sizes. There are some celebrities in the mix — Rob Gronkowski, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Charles Barkley, and the late Tom Menino, long-time mayor of Boston, would all qualify for that category. But most portray city residents with no claims to fame, and especially children in settings ranging from the classroom to the Big Balloon Parade.

Together, the items tell a story — actually, two of them.

First, they do a decent job of chronicling major developments and milestones during Sarno’s tenure — a list that includes everything from MGM’s historic decision to choose Springfield for a Western Mass. casino to the 25th anniversary of the Spirit of Springfield, conveyed in a large book that takes up a good amount of that desktop.

But the compendium also tells you a good deal about the person — an admittedly poor delegator who likes to be hands-on — who amassed it, hung all those pictures himself, and defies attempts by his staff to thin the herd of collectibles.

Together, he says, they speak to matters that are important to him — it would appear, then, there is very little that is unimportant — and that he doesn’t display them for his own viewing pleasure.

“People send me stuff all the time, and they love it when they come in, whether it’s for a meeting or a cup of coffee, and they see that photo that they sent or the gift they presented,” said Sarno, adding that he can help people in that quest because he knows where everything is. “It makes them feel part of the city, part of the administration.”

What this vast collection doesn’t convey, and obviously can’t, is what happens next.

Sarno admitted that many of the goals he set when he became mayor — everything from improved finances (the city now boasts the highest bond rating in its history) to more vitality downtown to sharp reductions in crime rates — have been achieved, to one degree or another.

Springfield is primed

Mayor Sarno says Springfield is primed to take full advantage of a movement back to cities by young professionals and retiring Baby Boomers.

But perhaps the biggest goal — restoring a sense of pride that has been missing since long before he took office — is still very much a work in progress.

When he became mayor, Sarno’s stated objective was to prompt people to stop saying ‘why Springfield?’ and start saying ‘why not Springfield?’ And while most have made an adjustment of sorts, many are still using some variation of the old language, and he wants that to change.

“We’ve shown what we can do, but we have to continue to confront, in concrete ways, the naysayers and the haters,” he explained. “I think this happens in every urban center — people get the sense that you can’t succeed. I know we can succeed, but we have to change the morale, the psyche of the city.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sarno about what’s been accomplished, what remains to be done, and how he intends to build on the collection in his office, even though there’s no room left for anything bigger than a commemorative thumbtack.

Picture Perfect

Sarno’s résumé is replete with career stops that have provided him with experience and mentorship that have helped him navigate eight years as the city’s CEO.

That list includes his four terms on the City Council and time as its president; his presence on the Financial Control Board that essentially ran the city for several years, including his early time in office; a lengthy stint as executive director of the South End Community Center; work in Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett’s office, where, among other things, he directed a program for juvenile probationers; and two years spent in the small office just a few feet away from the one he currently occupies, as aide to Mayor Mary Hurley.

But the top line on that résumé — or the bottom one, depending on how things are arranged chronologically — fits that category as well.

It reads simply ‘flooring installer, Corby Co.,’ four words that don’t begin to convey all that Sarno, then in his early 20s, gleaned from that job.

“Let me start by saying that I hated grouting — I mean, I really hated it,” he said, referring to the work of placing grout between tiles to keep them in place. “But I learned a lot on that job about working hard, getting your hands dirty, and taking pride in your work — and that’s why I always leave that line on my résumé.”

There is little, if anything, about his current job that he hates, although he admits there are frustrating days — many of them, in fact.

“There are times when I want to bang my head against the wall, and there are times when I want to bang someone else’s head against a wall,” he said, sounding a tiny bit like the Republican frontrunner for president. “And then you’ll get a thank-you card or letter or run into someone on the street, and they say, ‘thanks, mayor — you helped that individual or that cause or that family.’ And that keeps you going.”

He said he’s also had to endure a steep learning curve, despite all that he observed as Hurley’s aide, a city councilor, and Control Board member, and says the learning never stops.

Echoing sentiments he expressed to BusinessWest just a few months after taking office in 2008, when the top of his desk was uncluttered and the walls clear, he said that one can’t fully appreciate what it’s like to be mayor until one actually has that title on his or her business card — only Sarno doesn’t carry business cards.

Instead, he carries ‘Text-a-Tip’ cards, which, as that name suggests, implores the holder to text in tips that might help prevent or solve a crime, and he hands them out to everyone. But that’s another story.

Getting back to this one, Sarno said that when he talks about how his a 24/7 job, he means it.

“You can never turn off being mayor,” he explained. “When someone reaches out to you, no matter what day or time, night or day, you can’t say, ‘time out, I’m not the mayor right now.’ It’s part of your DNA.”

And this is especially true when his office, and the city itself, are in crisis mode. And there’s been a lot of that over the past eight years, including disasters of the Mother Nature-induced variety, such as the June tornado and October Nor’easter in 2011; the man-made type, such as the 2012 natural-gas explosion; and the Great Recession, which is in a category all its own.

Sarno told BusinessWest that weathering these storms has left the city — and him — battle-tested, for lack of a better term, and in some ways better able to tackle the hard work that remains.

Talking the Talk

Referring back to that learning curve he mentioned, Sarno said it takes many forms and includes virtually all aspects of the job, including that part about not being able to please everyone — something he knew already, but needed to experience as mayor, not as someone merely advising that office holder.

Also in that category is the art of public speaking, something he has to do almost every day. He believes he’s getting better at it, and constantly perfecting a style that blends unprepared remarks, humor, and his signature ending: ‘God bless you all, and God bless Springfield.’

“I don’t like to be on script — I like going off the top of my head,” he explained. “You need to do your homework and know your subject, but you also need to come from your head, your heart, and your gut. And you need to personalize and know your audience; you need to know when a dissertation is not warranted.”

Most all of his speeches also make reference to what he calls ‘priorities 1A and 1B.’ These would be education and jobs, respectively, and they represent the keys, he said, to alleviating the vexing problems of crime and poverty, not only in Springfield, but in every major urban center.

Big Balloon Parade

Seen here at the Big Balloon Parade, Mayor Sarno says Springfield has made progress, but work remains to improve the city’s psyche.

So while maintaining his focus on constituent service and what he calls the “meat and potatoes” of this job — making sure the trash gets picked up and the roads are plowed, for example — he places special emphasis on 1A and 1B, and believes progress has been achieved in both realms.

“People are less likely to get into that vicious cycle of poverty or involved in public-safety issues if they have a career trajectory,” he said, adding that his administration’s focus on jobs includes everything from attracting large new employers like MGM to encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation, through a variety of programs.

Overall, Sarno wants Springfield to be a place where people will want to raise a family, start a business, or both, and that stated goal is a tacit admission that people have been wary of doing so in recent years, and such attitudes still persist.

And this brings him back to that challenge of improving the city’s collective psyche. It won’t happen through a marketing initiative, although that might help, and the city has created one, he said. No, it will come about only if and when Springfield creates sufficient vibrancy and quality of life to become a destination.

Other urban centers have scripted impressive turnaround stories, he said, listing Lowell, Mass. and Brooklyn, N.Y. as examples, while noting that he’s buoyed by mounting evidence that cities are making a comeback decades after many residents and businesses abandoned them for the suburbs.

“We want to build on this phenomenon that’s happening across the country — empty nesters and Baby Boomers, besides young professionals, want to come back to their core city,” he said, “if you keep it clean and safe and give them the amenities they’re looking for — market-rate housing, job opportunities, and excitement.”

As for that marketing video, he said his administration thought about creating one several years ago, but didn’t believe there were enough success stories to tell. Now, there are more than enough, he noted, citing $2.5 billion in public and private investments taking place or recently completed.

Such numbers, and images, should help change some attitudes outside the city, he went on, adding that he’s probably more concerned about the outlook of those already living and or working in Springfield.

“This will get people to take a new look at themselves and the city,” Sarno explained. “Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemy, and we need to address that. I’m not going to paint a panacea of urban America — there are issues that you have to deal with day to day, and we’re doing that, but there are good things happening in Springfield.”

Collective Thoughts

As he looked around his office, Sarno all but acknowledged what his staff has been telling him for a long time now — that his office collection is due for some downsizing.

He’s not sure when or even if he’s going to get started on that project, or where he will put the items that come down off the walls or his desktop.

He does know that he probably has at least three years and nine months still to serve in this capacity, and that means more photos, T-shirts, ball caps, ceremonial shovels, and other items. His office isn’t going to get any bigger, so something will have to give.

What won’t give is his resolve to keep moving forward in his bid to achieve a real turnaround in Springfield. Progress has been made, but the job is far from finished.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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